A Look Back at the History of KeyArena at Seattle Center

Dec 11, 2017


Tyler Berry

Last week the Seattle City Council approved a memorandum of understanding for a $600 million privately financed renovation project for KeyArena, the one-time home of the Supersonics NBA franchise.

This is huge news for Seattle-based sports fans, as there has been increasing vocal interest in both a new NBA franchise as well as an NHL expansion team. While nothing is even close to being set in stone in those regards, the renovations are the city’s way of showing that it wants a state-of-the-art arena to attract both professional sports leagues.

With the project set to be completed by October 2020, we could see new teams in KeyArena in just a few short years. For now, let’s take a look back at the history of Seattle’s most historic sports venue and look ahead to the future of sports in the city.

The Washington State Coliseum Days

First built as part of the Seattle Center, a sprawling 74-acre entertainment complex that was the site of the 1962 World’s Fair, the Washington State Pavilion was remodeled post-fair as the Washington State Coliseum. Upon its opening, the brand-new arena housed the Seattle University men’s basketball team. Just a few years later, in 1967, the arena hosted the Seattle Supersonics in their inaugural NBA season and the team stuck around for the majority of its lifetime in the city.

By the time the Supersonics reached the arena, it had been yet again renamed the Seattle Center Coliseum, and remained that until KeyArena began its sponsorship in 1994. During the pre-KeyArena era, hockey became a common sighting at the venue, as it played host to the short-lived Central Hockey League Seattle Totems and then the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. The precedent for a possible NHL team was set back in the 1970s and 80s.

The Rebuilding of KeyArena

Between 1994 and 1995, the stadium was rebuilt to bring it up to NBA standards (the Sonics played at the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Washington for that entire season) and the naming rights were sold to KeyCorp. The sale resulted in the coliseum adopting the KeyArena name, which remains to this day.

These renovations, which included lowering the court 35 feet below street level to allow for 3,000 new seats, cost the city $74.5 million and another $21 million was assumed by the Supersonics. On November 4, 1995, the Sonics played their first game in the reconstructed arena, coming away with a 103-89 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The good vibes of the arena would continue all season, as Seattle made the 1996 NBA Finals. However, the team would go on to lose in six games to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.

Sonics Relocation

Much to the chagrin of Seattle basketball fans, the Sonics time in the new KeyArena was pretty short-lived. In July of 2008, the Sonics ownership group – based in Oklahoma City – reached an agreement with the city of Seattle to release the team from the final two years of its KeyArena lease and relocated to Oklahoma City. Despite leaving the colors, logo and name in Seattle in case of an NBA expansion team in the future, there were millions of unhappy Supersonics fans who hated to see the team go.

Nearly a decade later and there’s still no word on whether a team will end up back in Seattle, but things are certainly trending in the right direction.

Major Events

With Seattle being a city famous for its music as well as its NBA franchise, KeyArena played host to a lot of iconic events over the years including:

-The Beatles (1964, 1966)NBA Finals (1978, 1979, 1996)-Metallica’s Damaged Justice Tour (1989)-Goodwill Games (1990)NBA All-Star Game (1974, 1987)-U2’s Vertigo Tour (2005)-Madonna’s MDNA Tour (2012)

Looking Ahead to Upcoming Renovations

While all the details of the KeyArena renovations have yet to be released, environmental impact and transportation studies are already underway. Over the past couple of years, various versions of this renovation proposal have included plans to preserve the arena’s historic roof, while also lowering the bowl nearly 15 feet within the roof structure.

These plans would create a better layout for a potential NHL team, ridding the arena of its obstructed view seats which made it difficult to house hockey teams in the past. With the potential for an NHL expansion team or relocation announcement in July of 2018, approving this renovation project before the end of the year was a hugely positive step for Seattle.

There’s certainly much more to learn about the KeyArena renovations in the coming months, but if you’re a Seattle sports fan you have to be excited at the prospect of both a new NHL and NBA team in the near future.

(Cropped image courtesy of Maciek Lulko via Flickr.)